They hadn't been joking when they'd told him he was heading for a castle. John got out of the cab at the foot of the long drive, looked up at the structure and shook his head.
"I thought this was supposed to be some sort of secret society?" he asked the air. The air, stubborn thing, didn't deign to answer. Rather like Sherlock that way. John snorted to himself and started walking.
By the time he'd reached the entryway, he had an audience. He recognized Buffy, but the other two were strangers. One was a tall, dark-haired man his own age, his left eye covered by an eye-patch. The other man was older, his hair gone gray in the odd, mottled pattern that made John think that it had once been near his own sandy shade of brown.
"John," Buffy said, her voice flat.
"Hello, Buffy," John replied, stopping at the bottom of the stairs. "Good to see you."
"Wish I could say the same," she snapped back. "What are you doing here?"
"I told you when I called. I came to see Willow."
"Why?" the man with the eye patch asked. "Why come all this way to see someone you don't even like?" There was an amazing amount of aggression in his voice, in his stance, and John shoved his temper into check.
"Excuse me?" he asked, his voice low. "Who the hell are you, and how do you know what I think?"
"Xander," the older man said softly, a clear warning in his voice. John recognized that voice.
"Rupert Giles, yes."
John nodded. "Ah. I never caught your given name. A pleasure to meet you. Thank you, for your help."
"Nasty business, that," Giles murmured. "Now, can you all play nicely?"
Buffy rolled her eyes. "We're fine, Giles."
Giles arched an eyebrow at her, then leveled a firm look at Xander, who huffed once and nodded. Then he turned and walked slowly inside. Buffy shook her head and looked back at John.
"Come on in. I'll warn you now, it's a little crazy in here."
"You have met my husband?" John asked as he came up the stairs. "And our flatmate?"
"Yes. And that's why I warned you," Buffy said over her shoulder. "We have our own special kind of crazy here."
That fact was proved when Buffy swung the heavy door open, then skipped backwards to avoid the crossbow quarrels that imbedded themselves in the wood with heavy thunks.
"Missy! I told you, target practice is outside!" Buffy shouted.
"Sorry!" A young-sounding voice called from somewhere inside.
"Kids these days," Xander muttered. "No sense of appropriate weapons conduct."
"They don't get any better as they get older," John told him as they walked into the castle and Buffy closed the door. "When Sherlock gets bored, he has target practice in the front room. We're running out of framed pictures to hide the holes."
"So, this isn't anything new?" Xander asked.
"Nope. Just like home."
Xander looked at him, then sniffed and grinned, offering his hand. "Right. Sorry about outside. I'm Xander Harris."
"John Watson." John shook Xander's hand, feeling heavy calluses across the palm. "You help train the girls?"
"Yep. I was one of the originals. Me and Buffy and Willow go way back. That's why--"
"I understand," John said. "Really, it's fine. I get the same way with Sherlock or Jim."
Xander smiled slightly. "Right. Well, we should talk, before you see her. She knows you're coming, but..." he hesitated and looked at Buffy.
"She's... not really communicative right now," Buffy finished.
"Right. She..." Xander shook his head and sighed. "Look, come on and sit. Coffee or tea?"
John fell in next to Xander as the taller man led him further into the castle. "Tea is fine. Later. I should do what I can to do first. And if you're telling me that she's turned into a hermit, I do understand."
"You do?" Xander looked at him, obviously skeptical. John sighed.
"My sister is alcoholic. So was my father. My husband was addicted to cocaine. And I am a doctor. So trust me when I say I understand about addiction. I want to help, Xander."
"Do you think you can?" a woman asked from behind them. John turned to see a pretty brunette standing in the hall behind them. He hadn't heard her, hadn't even known she was there. Therefore...
"You're one of the Slayers."
She nodded. "Kennedy. You think you can help Will?"
"John, Kennedy is Willow's partner," Xander said.
John nodded, seeing a familiar tension in the way Kennedy stood, a darkness in her eyes that he usually saw only in Clara's face. "Ah," he breathed. "Well, I will try."
"Good. Because she won't let me in any more. And... I don't know what to do. I can't help her."
John nodded. He'd heard this before. "No. At this point, I don't think you can. The only one who can help Willow now is the person she sees when she looks in the mirror."
And maybe... just maybe, the person she'd see when she looked in his eyes.
To John's surprise, Xander brought him through a door that lead out into the back garden. He followed as the other man led him into a well-maintained Victorian maze, waiting patiently until Xander finally stopped and turned around.
"What do you know?" he asked. "About Willow. About why... and what happened before?"
John shook his head slowly. "Not a lot. I didn't know before we went into the meld, and by the time I woke up, she and Buffy were gone. Afterwards, Donna told us what she'd learned. So I know that she was addicted to magic, and I'll admit I don't have the foggiest idea how that can even happen."
Xander snorted. "Yeah, that was a new one for us, too. In a nutshell, she became dependent on the magic. Used it for everything, couldn't function without it. Started manipulating the rest of us. Then Tara... no, you don't know about Tara, do you?"
"No. Who is she?"
"Was. Tara was Willow's girlfriend. And she was murdered, right in front of Willow. It was an accident -- the guy was trying to kill Buffy, and he missed. But Willow... yeah, right off the deep end." Xander looked off into the distance, frowning slightly. "I've known Willow my whole life. Loved her for a long time. She's like my sister. And I never knew she had... that. That kind of... of rage. I never knew she was capable of it. Until I stood in front of her and told her that if she was going to destroy the world, she'd have to kill me first. Until I saw her actually consider that as an option." He turned and faced John squarely. "Believe me, John. I will do anything I can to keep her from going that far again."
John frowned, then asked quietly, "Would you kill her?"
Xander closed his eye, nodded once. "If I had to. And I would hate myself for the rest of my life for doing it."
"Then we'll do our damnedest to keep it from happening," John said firmly. "Now, what do you know about the Doctor?"
"Buffy said he was an alien," Xander answered. "And a time traveler."
"Right," John said with a nod. "And when he met Buffy and Willow the first time, he called Buffy the Twice-Born Slayer."
Xander blinked. "Well, I suppose. No, that's not right. Unless they're not counting when she was born born. I mean... she died twice, so she was born three times. Right?"
"No idea. And it is not important right now. You can tell me later," John answered briskly. "The important part was when he met Willow. He called her The Great Witch."
"Really? Why? Because of the Slayer thing?"
John shook his head. "I asked him. And he said it hasn't happened yet. Whatever it is that she needs to do hasn't happened yet. So..."
"So we need to get her back on her feet, and back to practicing magic, so that she can do whatever it is that the alien time traveler says she's going to do." Xander shook his head. "Wow. That's like talking to Andrew. And by the way, when you meet him, do not tell him you know an alien time traveler, okay? He's bad enough already. Come on. Let's go find the Great Witch."
John let himself into the room where Xander had told him was Willow's. There had been no answer to his knocking, which he'd been told to expect. Xander had also warned him that he didn't know how Willow would react to John. Xander and three Slayers were outside the door, just in case.
"Willow?" he called, stopping just inside the door. The room was dark, the curtains closed tightly. "Willow? It's John."
He heard a soft breath, then a ragged voice came out of the gloom," Go away."
John shook his head. "No. I came to talk. I want to help."
"I said go away!" There was more heat in Willow's voice, and a definite growl. It was also loud enough to give John a direction. He turned and took a step towards the voice.
Before he could say anything else, he was hit full in the chest by what felt like a brick wall. It forced him back against the door and knocked the wind out of him.
He heard Xander's raised voice from outside, and the door knob rattling, but the pressure against the door kept it from opening. John managed to catch his breath and raised his voice, "It's all right! I'm fine!"
Silence, then Xander answered, "You better not be lying to me, Doc."
In spite of everything, John grinned. "I'm not," he called back. "We're fine. Willow won't hurt me."
"Are you sure of that?" Willow asked, her voice quiet. She moved into view, her eyes narrowed. "Are you very sure of that, John?"
John met her eyes calmly. "I'm sure of that, Willow. Or I wouldn't have come."
She looked at him, and he watched as her face changed, the anger seeping out. The pressure on his chest vanished, and he staggered slightly, catching himself and smiling wryly.
"Clumsy of me," he said.
"Why did you come here?" Willow asked.
"Because you needed me?" John offered. She shook her head.
"But... it's my fault," she said weakly. "Mrs. Holmes... she wouldn't have... it's my fault!"
John swallowed his grief -- still too close! -- and shook his head. "No, Willow. It wasn't your fault. It wasn't anyone's fault. Mum made her own decision, to protect us all. It wasn't anything you did. She was already gone by the time you slipped."
"I slipped," Willow repeated. "You... you make it sound so delicate. I slipped. Not I tried to kill your niece, or I tried to steal Martin's magic. I slipped."
"You slipped," John repeated. "Buffy told Donna, about the addiction. Xander filled me in on some of the rest. You slipped, and now it's time to pick yourself up again. Like you did before. And we'll help you." John turned, finding a light switch by the door. He turned on the overhead light, then turned back to Willow. She looked as if she hadn't slept in days, hadn't showered in as long. Her hair was bedraggled and her face drawn and pale. "Sweetheart," he said gently. "When did you last eat?"
"No!" Willow whimpered. "You're not supposed to be so nice! You're not supposed... why don't you hate me?"
John blinked, surprised. This wasn't the way his talks with his sister usually went. "I don't hate you, Willow. No one hates you." He frowned and stepped forward. "Except for you. You hate yourself, don't you?"
Willow stared at him, her face stricken, and for a moment, John could clearly feel her self-loathing, her fear, and her crushing guilt. He met her eyes calmly, held them, then darted forward and caught her as she crumpled to the ground. Willow slumped against him, sobbing bitterly, and he just held her, rubbing her back and rocking her. He saw the door open slightly, saw Xander step into the room, Kennedy a step behind him. He looked up at them and nodded, then looked back down at Willow.
"It's all right, sweetheart. We're all here."
Once Willow calmed down, Kennedy took over, helping Willow to her feet and shooing the men out of the room. In the hall, John slumped against the wall and sighed.
"You okay?" Xander asked softly.
John nodded. "Yeah. Just tired. I wouldn't say no to that cuppa now."
Xander smiled. "Right. Come on. Want something to eat, too?"
"Please?" John followed Xander down the halls and into a large kitchen. A thin, nervous-looking blond man looked up from the stove as they came in.
"Andrew, think we can rustle up some tea?" Xander called out. "And something to eat?"
"Sure," Andrew answered. "Something substantial, or snackish?"
"Just a biscuit, if you have some," John said.
"Sure. Have a seat. You're that doctor, right? From London?" Andrew set up an electric kettle, scooped loose-leaf tea into a pot, set biscuits on a plate. He handed the plate to John and poured hot water over the tea leaves. "You came to see Willow. How is she?"
John nodded. "Fragile, right now." He accepted the cup that Andrew offered to him with a smile of thanks. "But I think she's going to start moving in the right direction. With the help and support of the rest of us."
"She's got that," Buffy said as she came into the kitchen with Giles. "So, what happened in there? Diana said there was a scuffle?"
"No scuffle. She tried to scare me into leaving," John answered. "I don't scare easily."
"Having met your husband, I believe that," Buffy quipped. John grinned and took another sip of his tea, watching at Giles looked at Buffy and nodded once. She smiled slightly and touched Xander's arm. He looked up, looked at the others, then nodded and reached out to grab Andrew's arm.
"Andrew, let's take a walk," he said, herding the smaller man towards the door. A moment later, John was alone with Giles. The older man sat down at the table across from John, who calmly picked up the teapot and poured a second cup. He pushed it across the table. Giles picked it up and sipped, then leaned back in his chair.
"For an American, Andrew's picked up the knack of real tea quite nicely," he murmured. "Doctor--"
"Please. Call me John."
"John. What did you do?" Giles asked. "When this last happened, Willow was fragile, as you say. And it took weeks of careful handling before she was even able to face anyone outside of a very small group. Now... she's closed every one of us out. All of her family and friends. And yet you come here, a stranger she's met twice, and she not only talks to you, she opens her heart. How?"
John considered the question as he sipped his tea. He set the cup down and folded his hands on the table. "Two things, I think. First, I've had a lot of experience with addicts. Both as a doctor, and as a person. I don't know what Xander told you -- most of what we discussed, I imagine."
"He did mention your family, yes."
"I would have been surprised if he hadn't. I know what to look for. I know when a person is too far gone to be reached. My sister is there, and she's drinking herself to death. Willow isn't. She wants help. And she feels completely unworthy of that help. Now, Mr. Giles, suppose you tell me just why that young lady hates herself so much?"
Giles looked startled, probably by the steel in John's voice. He took of his glasses and polished them, then put them on and steepled his fingers in front of his face. He didn't speak for several minutes, then sighed and asked, "Has anyone mentioned Tara?"
"Xander did. Not a lot. Just... Willow's girlfriend? Killed by accident?"
Giles nodded. "Yes. Tara was very sweet. Very shy. Unassuming. A lovely girl, and a powerful witch in her own right. When she met Willow, she was... a neglected child, trying to escape from an abusive family. Willow helped her to bloom, cherished her. Did everything she could to protect her, including moving her into Buffy's home in California. Which is where she died."
John winced. "And now she blames herself."
"She blames herself," Giles agreed. "Her guilt almost destroyed her, came very close to destroying her relationship with Kennedy. I'd no idea she still harbored that much guilt." He finished his tea, then looked at John. "What was the other thing?"
"Ah. What has Buffy told you about the Doctor?"
"Some rather extraordinary things. Unbelievable, usually."
"That's funny, coming from a man who deals with demon-hunting teenagers," John murmured. Giles smiled and nodded.
"True. What about him?"
"Did she mention The Great Witch?" When Giles shook his head, John told him what he'd told Xander. "So, we need her. And before he left, the Doctor told me to come here, to talk to her. He said I'd be able to get through to her."
"So here you are." John turned to see Willow standing in the kitchen door, her arms wrapped around herself. She was wearing a tattered sweater that was too big for her, and she refused to meet his eyes. "Is that why you came? Because you were sent?"
"I came because you needed me," John answered firmly. "Come sit, Willow. Have some tea."
"I remembered, what the Doctor called you. The Catalyst," Willow said as she sat down. "I looked into your eyes, John. Now tell me what I saw there."
John smiled and reached out to take Willow's hand. "A brave lady who needs help, and who doesn't think she deserves it. And who is dead-wrong, I might add. Someone who I like and respect, and who I honestly think will be back on her feet and back in command before the month is out." He squeezed her fingers. "Someone I care about, as a friend."
Willow's lips quirked. "All that, huh? That's a lot to live up to."
"Not so much," John answered. "Now, you've seen what I think of you. The choice is up to you. Are you going to live up to it, or are you going to run?"
Willow's hand was shaking in his, but her voice was firm when she answered. "I'm not running. I just... need some time to get myself back together. Giles, do you think the coven--?"
"I already spoken to them," Giles said. "As soon as you're ready, you're welcome."
Willow went slightly pink. "Oh. Thank you. And... John, what about the others? The department? I can't imagine they'll ever want me to work with them again."
John shook his head slowly. "Wrong again, Willow. There are a lot of people out there who want you back. Everyone misses you. I have gifts, in my bag, from just about everyone. I'd be careful opening the one from Doctor Kuryakin, though. He said it was something from his Romani relatives."
"And... Martin?" Willow asked softly.
"Actually, he wants your advice. He wants to start learning, and he doesn't know where to begin."
Willow stared at him. "I thought... I didn't think he'd ever want to see me again. After what I did--"
"It took him a few weeks to get over being afraid of you," John said. "He had a long sit down with the Doctor, and another with Douglas. That moved him from afraid to being more pissed off than I think anyone has ever seen him. He scared the piss out of poor Arthur."
"No way!" Willow blurted out. John grinned.
"Oh, yes. But he can't stay angry for any amount of time, Livvy says. Right now, he's more worried that you won't want to see him. Which is why he didn't come to the castle with me. He's at the airfield."
"Oh," Willow breathed. She looked around, shoved her hands into her sweater pockets, then looked at John. "Are you staying?"
"If you need me to," John answered. "But I can't stay too long. Mycroft is on honeymoon in the south of France, and Livvy is a bit distracted with her own wedding plans. So I need to get back to work. "
"And Sherlock and Jim?" Willow asked
"Are in Dublin. After Mum died, Jim decided to get back in touch with his own family. He brought Sherlock to meet his grandfather. They supposed to be back today."
Willow gave him a ghost of her former smile. "So, since you can't stay, can I give you a lift to the airport?"
John spent the rest of the afternoon touring the castle, meeting the Slayers, and being wrangled into giving a brief demonstration of marksmanship and small arms care. He met Buffy's sister, Dawn, and her and Xander's children, and enjoyed a boisterous lunch that left him pleasantly full and nearly deaf. He walked around the ramparts with Willow, who seemed more herself ever minute. She told him about Tara, and he held her when she cried. Finally, at sunset, he excused himself and called the airport.
"I'll be there in an hour. Yes, everything is fine here. She's fine. She's driving me out, so you'll see her yourself. And she's talking about coming down to London herself in a few weeks and introducing you to the right people. She's looking forward to seeing you. All right. See you in an hour." He pocketed his mobile and turned around to see Kennedy standing just inside the door. She said nothing; instead, she walked up to him, kissed him firmly, then turned on her heel and walked out. John blinked, then smiled and headed out to say his goodbyes.
By the time they reached the small, private airport, it was well after dark. Willow pulled the little car into a parking spot near the hanger and turned off the engine. Then she just sat there.
"Nervous?" John asked gently.
"Well, that's a first. No one has ever been nervous about seeing me before," Martin's voice floated through the partially open windows. "Usually, I'm the anti-nervous person, if there even is such a thing."
Willow looked startled, opening the car door so quickly that Martin was forced to dance backwards to avoid being hit. John hurried out of the car, coming around the boot as Willow got out and faced Martin. Martin smiled slightly, his hands clasped behind his back.
"You... you're looking well," he said after a moment.
She fidgeted, looking down, then back up. "Thanks. You... you, too. How's Livvy?"
"Fine. She's fine," Martin answered quickly. Then he snorted and shook his head. "Are you really all right?"
Willow frowned. "Not yet. I will be. I think."
"You'll be fine," John said firmly.
Willow smiled at him, then looked at Martin. "Martin, I am so--"
"I know," Martin interrupted. "I know, and I accept your apology. Look, we've all had a bad time of it. You fell off the wagon. I understand that now. The only thing I'm still even a bit tiffed at is that you didn't tell us in the first place." He held one hand out to Willow. "So, are we still friends?"
Gingerly, Willow took his hand, then squeaked in surprise as Martin pulled her into a hug. John smiled as he watched them, saw the glimmer of tears in Willow's eyes as she stepped back.
"Thank you, Martin," she said softly.
Martin just smiled. "So, when are you coming to London?"
Willow looked thoughtful. "Not sure. I'll have to make some calls, talk to the coven here. I need to talk to them anyway, so I can get myself straightened out. Once I'm more... steady, I'll come visit."
"Call me when you're ready. I'll come fetch you."
Willow smiled broadly. "I'd like that."
Martin nodded, then looked at John. "We're cleared for take-off any time you're ready, Doctor. I'll just go finish my checks."
"Right. I'll be along in a moment." John watched as Martin nodded to Willow, then turned and headed back to GERTI.
"That went better than I thought it would," Willow whispered.
John grinned, then turned towards Willow. "You're going to be all right?" he asked. "Because I can always chuck you into GERTI and take you home with me."
"Right, so we can spend hours with me looking into your eyes?" Willow quipped. "I think your husband and my partner would get jealous. No, I'll be fine, John. Thank you, for everything."
John smiled, "You're very welcome, Willow." He looked towards GERTI, then back at Willow. "Who would win, do you think? Sherlock or Kennedy?"
Her eyes widened, and she started to grin. John met her eyes, then laughed as the both of them chorused, "Jim."
John let himself into the flat and dropped his bag beside the door. It was quiet, and he wondered where Sherlock and Jim were. When he'd texted from Scotland, Sherlock had said they were home. They were out to dinner, no doubt. Or running around after a case. He pulled his mobile out of his pocket and started to send a text, then heard someone clattering down the stairs. Jim appeared in the kitchen, saw John and smiled brilliantly.
"I thought I heard you," he said, going into the freezer. "I have to hurry back up. But I forgot the ice. Want to see what I've done now?"
"Jim, what are you up to?"
Jim grinned like a little boy. "You'll like it. He loves it. Oh, and we're going to need more cling-film." He turned and ran back up the stairs, leaving a bewildered John behind.
"Cling-film? Jim, why are we going to need more cling-film?" he called, starting up the stairs. "Jim... oh!"